When Konami handed the reins of its staple franchise to little known Spanish studio MercurySteam to reboot back in 2010, fans were admittedly skeptical at what the studio intended to do with the franchise.
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows
Release: (NA) February 25th 2014, (EU) February 28th 2014, (UK) February 28th 2014
Forgoing a lineage of Metroidvania style gameplay, Castlevania: Lords of Shadows turned out to be a hit amongst the legion of fans, even converting non-Castlevanians to the series. The action-orientated approach provided an easy enough entry point for newcomers, spinning a well-crafted tale which left an undeniable impression and lust for a title to sink our teeth into.
Thankfully MercuryStream continued the storyline with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, establishing a perfect bridge to leap into Lords of Shadow 2, the final installment to an epic adventure embarked on almost half a decade ago. With Gabriel Belmont now corrupted, we find ourselves in the icy cold body of Lord Dracula for the very first time and it’s going to be mixed feelings for many.
Lords of Shadow 2 starts off promising with one of the most explosive tutorials I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The events unfold in the past with Dracula’s castle under siege by paladins acting in the name of God for all that is righteous and holy. It’s here where we’re introduced to the mighty powers of Dracula – his supreme abilities for destruction and lightning reflexes. The grandiose battle is more than enough to draw you in like some sort of seductive Succubus , and I was more than happy to be consumed.
All the events culminate with an encounter against a mammoth titan, which the Prince of Darkness systematically dismantles before putting the final nail in the coffin of one particularly troublesome pursuer.
If you didn’t play the original Lords of Shadow or Mirror of Fate, MercurySteam have ensured you aren’t left in the lurch with a brief animated history lesson of all the preceding events leading up to the current point in time. The animated sequence is well constructed, but essentially spoils the prior two titles if you have yet to play them, but then again why would you be playing Lords of Shadow 2 without having played Lords of Shadow?
Fast-forward a few centuries, Dracula is now a shadow of his former self, weakened by his battles with family members Simon Belmont and Alucard. Wandering an almost unrecognizable modern world, Satan’s army has risen and are now on the verge of taking control. Seems in his absence, there isn’t much standing in the way for Satan to take up shop on Earth. In an unlikely alliance with past villain Zobek, Dracula will need to reacquire his lost powers in order to stop Satan. In exchange for his services, Zobek promises to put an end to Dracula’s eternal damnation once and for all.
After all the excitement of pummeling through enemies like blood-filled water balloons, Lords of Shadow 2 takes on a peculiar stealth gameplay early on. In his weakened state, it seems Dracula is no match for even patrolling henchmen, thereby reducing him to cowardly tactics of hiding in the shadows, possessing unwary guards and transforming into rats in order to get about. Having the gameplay decline from 100 miles an hour to zip is a system shock to say the least, and fairly underwhelming as the stealth elements are unforgiving and repetitive at best.
When you fail at stealth, there is no option to fight your way out, leaving you as a vampiric punching bag until you extinguish and reset back to your last checkpoint. Perhaps there are methods for escape but I never discovered them. In the narrow confines of some areas, as much as I tried to establish a safe distance to pull off some black magic trickery, none of my attempts proved to be fruitful at all, reverting back to my last safe haven in time.
The combat mechanics proves to be a saving grace as MercurySteam has retained much of what was great from Lord of Shadows, and added in a few surprises along the way. The Void Sword and Chaos Claw are back, sucking away at life and crushing armour respectively. The Shadow Whip proves to be a useful inclusion, like a Swiss Army Knife adaptable for nearly any given situation, although it’s greatest strength lies in its combo-building capabilities.
Creating combos gathers up valuable souls for your Void Sword and Chaos Claw, but keeping a chain flowing can prove especially difficult as any form of light damage is enough to disrupt all your efforts. It’s frustrating enough that you’ll be resorting to less combo reliant weaponry such as the Shadow Whip and Shadow Daggers for range, plus there’s the intriguing Stola’s Clock for time manipulation. The last one is most effective for its crowd-controlling nature but of course if things become too much to handle; Dracula has an Ace up his sleeve, transforming into a rampaging dragon to crush foes into oblivion. When all these elements combine, Dracula is rich and varied enough with his arsenal of abilities to elevate Lords of Shadow 2 beyond a humble hack-n-slash experience.
Powered by the new Mercury Engine 2 under the hood, there are notable improvements to the visuals over its predecessor, but some questionable designs does little to exploit its full potential. The open-world environments and free-roaming landscape opens up the Castlevania universe with explorable locales such as Dracula’s Castle and the derelict cityscape being the most memorable. Sewer systems and interiors of pharmaceutical factories does little to spark the imagination, which is a shame if you had the chance to view some of the awe-inspiring concept art from its development.
The Castlevania series has established a reputation for its soundtrack, which this time round features melodies and tunes that both blend with the crafted worlds and sinister connotations. It’s almost Symphony of the Night ambiance resonates with the dark surrounds and draws out what I’ve loved about the series for so long.
The plot lacks the coherence and finely honed narrative of Lords of Shadow, with some disjointed continuity and a climax that feels unfulfilled given the lead up of the prior two titles. Patrick Stewart (Zobek) and Robert Carlyle (Dracula) brings their respective roles off the pages, as does a strong line-up of supporting characters but only so much can be done with the source material they have to work with.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is a competent sequel, however the inevitably comparison with the original Lords of Shadow sees it falling short of its full potential. I appreciate what MercurySteam were trying to do with this outing and there are some genuinely brilliant inclusions that unfortunately haven’t been executed to the high expectations of its loyal fans, not to mention some missteps better left forgotten.
Perhaps it was the mystery of the unknown, or the allure of what might become of the Belmont lineage that left me and probably many others wanting more, and once that almost feverish status is achieved, it was always going to be a difficult pursuit to satisfy everyone. Judging Lords of Shadows 2 on its merits alone, it’s worthy of testing out for yourself, if just to say you’ve taken on the role of Dracula. Who knows, you might actually come out of it with a deeper appreciation for the plight of Dracula.
7.0 – Good. Entertaining but is held back by a couple of flaws. It will certainly capture its intended audience but it won’t appeal to everyone.